It’s the Future

Saturday 10 September, 2011

In recent months I have found myself saying that personal development is the future. The first time I said it, I was talking with a friend and it sounded to me a little like an attempt to market myself. The next time I said it, I felt more of a force behind my words. Now when I say it, I can see where my conviction comes from.

I read a book this month, The Origins of Virtue (Ridley, 1997), in which the author uses the Prisoner’s Dilemma to underpin his explanation of human behaviour. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an element of game theory which tells us it is more profitable to ‘defect’ when playing the game; be ruthless rather than kind, especially when we are competing with people who are more reasonable and seek to ‘co-operate’. It’s human nature. That’s who we are.

If, for example, you and I are hungry and there is a limited amount of food, the best strategy for each individual is to take as much food as each of us can get. If you decide instead to take less in an attempt to make the food last longer, that simply leaves more for me to take. But if we struck an agreement to take a little food each, we could make the food last longer and both survive for longer than one person could survive using a ruthless strategy. That is the essence of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

I have read a number of texts on evolution and man’s place in nature and I am familiar with where we come from and what makes us who we are. Yet, although our selfish genes create a nature which sets out to benefit the individual, we are also highly sociable and we often go to great lengths to help each other.

So why not go that step further and co-operate with each other even more, to the extent that, whilst none of us walk away with the maximum pay-off, all of us still benefit more than is currently the case? Interestingly with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in any one-off game pure logic and reason dictate that the best strategy to use is to be ruthless and defect every time. Yet, when we play the game over and over again with each other, the most effective strategies involve much more co-operation. Repeated interactions with the same people encourage co-operation.

Continue this forward and we approach the kind of altruistic acts of which I have always insisted we are capable. Even Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) says, “It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism.” And yet time after time I question why it is that humanity has repeatedly failed to grasp the kinds of behaviour which can help us all to create a better world. The Native Americans live in harmony with nature; Amazonian tribes and a variety of other indigenous groups do it, so why can’t the rest of us?

Well, according to Ridley, those cultures don’t live the way we think they do. Theirs is not the romantic lifestyle of an idealistic world. They act in the same way we all do. They plunder mother earth and each other just like the rest of us do. I would have expected this knowledge to deepen my concern, but it had the opposite effect. It renewed my hope, my belief, my conviction that the human race can succeed. And this is why: I’d been looking in the wrong place for my solution.

I’d been distracted by stories of how other civilizations, cultures, races, people – past and present – manage to live sustainable, peaceful, loving, harmonious existences. I’d been waiting frustratedly for the rest of us to catch up. But the fact is they don’t live like that. So, in the light of this new information, I turn my attention to this post’s eponymous mantra, which has been gathering momentum in recent months: personal development is the future. It’s at the level of the individual where change will occur; where each and every person becomes responsible for their own evolution.

But the step towards greater self-awareness, which means taking a close look at ourselves, is not an easy one. I met up with a previous client of mine this week. We had worked together briefly but intensely this summer to successfully complete a project she was working on. She made that step towards greater self-awareness because she approached me to support her in her project.

I told her if she is to work with me then she has to look at herself, see herself within the whole process and observe how she deals with what comes her way. She was cautious at first and a little wary, but she did everything asked of her and it worked very well. She succeeded in her project and grew as an individual.

My goal as her coach was to provide the guidance and support for her to become a better version of herself. She benefitted from the work we did together and has since talked enthusiastically to other people about what she learnt. Consequently, they are talking to me about creating similar opportunities for themselves. They are eager to work on aspects of their lives in a way that will make them better human beings.

The greater the number of people who take the time to examine their behaviour and work on themselves, the better it is for our species. It’s the future because when we look at ourselves, we see what is wrong with our nature, but we also see what is right. And, importantly, we discover that we have our evolution in our own hands.

Related posts: Acknowledging Our Nature | An Unconscious Strategy | Eyes Closed, Eyes Open

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